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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Fancy Free

IF THERE IS A HEAVEN FOR COMIC iconoclasts, Laurence Sterne is leaning out of it, smiling. The film made of his novel Tristram Shandy—more properly, the film instigated by his novel—has caused a stir because it juggles cinematic conventions just as he gamboled with the conventions of the novel.  

However, as he views things from his present perch, Sterne can see that, unlike his own daring, this picture had predecessors in wry film-consciousness. To name a few: Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., Jean-Luc Godard with several of his early pictures, Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and—a woefully ignored gem—Richard Lester’s How I Won the War. One could almost say, contrary to Sterne’s environment, that anti-convention films have become a minor convention.

Still, if not exactly a groundbreaker, Tristram Shandy has its refreshments. The picture begins with the two leading actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, being made up for their double roles in the film: one is to be Tristram-Shandy- and-Steve-Coogan, the other is to be Toby-Shandy-and-Rob-Brydon. In fact, Coogan plays a third role: near the start he flips on a wig to become his own father, Walter, during the arduous birth of the baby who is to grow into Tristram. Other members of the cast also appear both as Sterne characters and as themselves. Action then tumbles forth, mostly in a huge country house, sometimes set in the eighteenth century, sometimes in the present.

A few snatches of cogent story are visible in both the Sterne and non-Sterne scenes, but as Walter Allen said of the novel, “To summarize the plot is to say even less about the book than such a procedure usually does.” A phrase that Sterne mentions near the finish of his book is used as the film’s subtitle, “A Cock and Bull Story,” and it doesn’t escape comment in the picture. The screenplay is credited to Martin Hardy, though some of the “off-camera” dialogue seems improvised. Those scenes are in the mode of what Sterne said writing should be like—conversation. “Off camera” the cast and crew chat about love affairs and professional matters and a couple of babies, none of which is meant as either parallels to or contrasts with the novel. They are quite deliberately irrelevant to the book, and thus, paradoxically, they mimic some of Sterne’s excursions.

Coogan and Brydon and Naomie Harris as a production assistant are light and lively. The film world permeates the “off-camera” talk: Fassbinder gets discussed. (Bits of Nino Rota’s music for two Fellini films brighten the score. ) The director Michael Winterbottom, who has been credited with serious postmodernist intent, may or may not have it—at any rate, he frolicks about. Apparently he also wants to feed a hunger that teases many of us about one film or another or about film-making in general. What are these actors really like? What do they say just before and just after the camera rolls? (An MGM actress once complained that Clark Gable had bad breath. I never see a Gable love scene without remembering it.) In other words, what is the stream of life that flows around this fabricated stream of life?

Was Sterne especially interested in upsetting the quick-frozen conventions of novel-writing? Certainly, but perhaps there is another factor. Sterne, like the other great satirist-ironist later in his century, Jonathan Swift, was a clergyman. Virginia Woolf said of Sterne: “It was a daring thing for a clergyman to perceive a relationship between religion and pleasure.” One can imagine that both Sterne and Swift saw the pleasure in their writing as a way to modulate the difference between life as it ought to be and life as it is.

In any case, sitting in front of Tristram Shandy for an hour and a half lets us enjoy the fact that, smooth though its making is, the picture is winking at us.

NANNY MCPHEE was made for children. I intruded because Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay and is in it. I hazard the guess that quite small children—pre- science fiction, pre-heroics—will enjoy its fairy-tale quality. Thompson, said one report, became interested in the project through reading the original novels, by Christianna Brand, to her daughter (b. 1999).

The story is about seven young English brothers and sisters in the nineteenth century who are very badly behaved and have driven several nannies out of the house. They are the children of a funeral director—Colin Firth, kind but harried—who spends most of his day among coffins. A new nanny, McPhee, arrives, not exactly sent for but provided, she says, by the government. This is Thompson, with a bulbous nose, a fang rather than a bucktooth, and warts that appear and disappear. She is calm and confident, and since this is a fairy tale, we know that she will prevail with the children. A few touches of magic help her. We know, too, that if we can only be patient, in time we will see the true Thompson face.

Parents who take youngsters to this film can, in addition to the fun of their companions’ responses, get some rewards of their own. First, they will see prominent actors just lending a hand. Derek Jacobi, an Antony and a Cyrano and heaven knows what else, plays a funeral assistant. Angela Lansbury, no longer Marpling along, dons a beak nose and outsize hauteur to play a tyrannical aunt. (The aunt’s money is important in the plot, which needs no further details.) Possibly these actors and others took their parts not only out of friendship for Thompson but because they had a chance to mug like mad. And they are in the midst of a furious food fight at the end. Additionally, some of the textiles, tweed and velvet, that the designer Nic Ede used for the men’s costumes are knockouts. And there is a comfy wall-to-wall score by Patrick Doyle, who did the memorable music for the two Kenneth Branagh films of Shakespeare in which Thompson appeared.

If Thompson makes more films of books that she has read to her daughter, I’ll attend. But I hope she’ll favor some books that she might have read to us.